Boutique Investment Banks vs. Bulge Bracket Banks

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“I work for a boutique investment bank,” responded Todd cockily, smirking and now pulling up his pants over his temporarily retreated beer-gut, illustrating that this was one of those hardcore New York male-anorexia and exercise weeks. He would be spilling out of pants next week no problem after this weekend’s depression-gorge.

Todd paused and collected himself. “Yeah, I mean, I just really wanted to be closer to the deals, you know. Get more exposure.”

-The Boutique, Leveraged Sellout

When most people out there decide they really want to do investment banking, they usually go for the big names first: Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, even UBS LA.

But occasionally someone asks me about the boutiques out there, whether they’re referring to the “top” ones like Evercore and Lazard, middle-market banks, or true regional boutiques that just have 1 or 2 offices.

Going to a top name is just not an option for everyone. If market conditions are bad, if you have no previous finance experience, or if you are trying to switch into investment banking from engineering or law or other fields, you might have to go with a boutique.

But are there any cases where a boutique would actually be preferable to a bulge bracket? Should someone actually want to go to one?

The Main Difference Between A Bulge Bracket And A Boutique

People most commonly cite the size of deals as the difference. While Goldman Sachs may advise on multi-billion dollar acquisitions, a boutique will usually stick to deals under a billion dollars and often far less than that. In the world of corporate finance, $50 million is chump change.

Other commonly cited differences are working in smaller groups, getting more responsibility, and being more than just a “number-cruncher” at a boutique.

While these can be true sometimes, the main difference at the Analyst level is that your boutique experience will be much more random.

Fooled By Randomness

Make no mistake: you can get tremendous experience at a boutique and learn more about actual deals than you might at a bulge bracket. But you might also spend all your time creating pitchbooks and doing useless work if the senior bankers can’t make rain.

I’ve seen both scenarios. One friend at a boutique basically learned the entire job in 3 months because he was effectively running a deal by himself.

Another friend spent most of his time making pitchbooks, making coffee (no administrative staff, thank you very much) and did deals that were so small he never learned much.

Don’t assume that you will get a “better experience.” Your chances of getting good deals to work on and having good exit opportunities are much higher at a bulge bracket.

Ok, But Is It The End Of The World If I’m Working At A Boutique?

No. But if you do go that route, you should very carefully investigate the work environment, dealflow, and everything else before you jump into it blindly. To get a more accurate view, try speaking with Analysts and Associates rather than higher-ups.

No matter how much diligence you do, however, the sad fact is that there will be time lag between when you interview and when you start, and a lot can change in a year… or even a few months.

Even at a great bulge bracket office like UBS LA, the departure of a few “stars” caused much havoc, and the effect is only more pronounced at a much smaller investment bank.

Still, you should do your homework as much as possible.

But Still, Is There Any Reason I Would Want To Work At A Smaller Bank?

I strongly recommend that you spread your net wide and consider all your options. Unless you have some kind of personal connection at a boutique, though, there is little reason to prefer it to a big name bank.

Lifestyle is typically not much better. Yes, sometimes there are one-off cases of Analysts only working 60 hours a week… at certain offices. But at the “top” names like Evercore, investment banking analysts work bulge bracket hours. And once you get up to around 80 hours a week, there’s honestly not much difference between 80 vs. 90 anyway.

You will have exit opportunities, but you are more limited because certain firms always go to bulge brackets first, so Analysts there will get preferential treatment.

At top boutiques and middle-market banks, the pay will be comparable to bulge brackets, but at smaller regional places, it can actually be significantly less… as in, 50% less in some cases.

The only situation where you might want to pick a boutique instead is if you have offers from multiple banks, are reasonably confident the boutique will give you good work, and just like the people or work environment a lot more after thorough investigation. Your team is important, and great experience is not worth it if you want to shoot yourself repeatedly because you hate your co-workers.

About the Author

is the Founder of Mergers & Inquisitions and Breaking Into Wall Street. In his spare time, he enjoys learning obscure Excel functions, editing resumes, obsessing over TV shows, and traveling so much that he's forced to add additional pages to his passport on a regular basis.

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207 Comments to “Boutique Investment Banks vs. Bulge Bracket Banks”

Comments

  1. Jack says

    Hello, the site is great. What are your thoughts on Brown Brothers Harriman? Reputation, work, exit opportunities. Thank you!

  2. Mike says

    Where would an institution with around 700 million in assets fall within the boutique spectrum? Is that unreasonably small?
    Also, how does interning at a boutique look on your resume if you plan to apply for FT positions are MM or BBs?

  3. Anant says

    Hey

    Can you help me pick out good boutique investment banks in India? Also, cold calling boutique banks outside India wont land me a job, right? as I do not have valid work visa for that particular country or is it still worth a try?

    Thank in advance!

  4. matt says

    just wondering, at two MM’s like BMO and HSBC what would you say the pay is like? (in nyc)i’m assuming 60k start + 20-30k bonus? on average

    • M&I - Nicole says

      Starting is probably a bit higher but it depends on your division. Ballpark ~70K-80K starting but have heard some hv higher base

  5. Prit says

    What are your thoughts on a mid-market advising group at a bulge bracket? I will not mention the name of the firm, but I have been offered an analyst position with their mid-market IB group. Considering that I am still working at a bulge bracket, can I leverage this into a good exit opp?

    • says

      Possibly, yes, but in general you should avoid those groups because they get very few resources since they are not the core focus of the firm. Better to go to a middle market bank if you want to do middle market M&A.

  6. SK says

    Hi,
    I recently got a job offer as a full time associate at a boutique i bank that specifically only deals in ‘private placement of securities’. The manager also said that they’re typically only dealing with ‘private equity deals’ I can’t figure out what kind of work would I be exposed to. Any ideas?

    • M&I - Nicole says

      I presume the IB you’ll be working for is an intermediary between those seeking to raise money (PE funds) and various investors (LPs) who may be interested in investing in the PE fund. You might be helping PE funds to raise money. Such firms are also called private placement agents. A few placement agents are structured as groups within large IB firms and more frequently as separate boutiques (e.g. Atlantic-Pacific Capital, Campbell Lutyens, Probitas Partners, Touchstone Group). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Private_placement_agent

      Kind of work you are exposed to – depends on your role. Have you spoken to peeps at your firm re details of what you will be doing etc? They will know better than I do!

      • SK says

        Looks exactly like the job description. Is this job considered a senior level position, and are compensation often based on commission or just fees? Can’t seem to find much on the net concerning compensation.

  7. Ralph says

    Hi,

    Incredibly helpful site! I am currently a Junior studying Finance at Virginia Tech with a 3.6 GPA. My only experience in banking will be an externship I will be doing at Wells Fargo in Charlotte. I have worked an internship as a financial researcher at a small financial services company. Citi comes to recruit at my school in January. Do you think I have a legitimate shot of being interviewed by them? Main concern is GPA. I do have a lot of extra-curriculars and volunteer work. Also, if it doesn’t work-out with them, I will try my luck at investment boutiques. How hard is it to transition from a boutique to a bulge bracket firm?

    Thanks a lot,
    Ralph

    • M&I - Nicole says

      1 question – your GPA is fine. You should network lots during Citi’s info session and apply. See how it goes
      2 question – Not too hard if you know what you’re doing, have great deal experience under your belt and network loads

  8. Stevie says

    Would it be possible to work in a Boutique for a certain amount of years then move – via a possible successful application – into a Bulge?

    (Aside from the MBA route.)

  9. distressed south african says

    I would like to know in which department a BBA graduate will most likely specialize in with regards to investment banking,as I have noticed in south africa you need a Bcom degree or CA(SA) to be employed in IB.I’m really stressed because I’m afraid that ill complete my BBA(in a top business school) and not get a job in investment banking because of what I have stated above.is there any websites you can provide for companies in SA that employ BBA graduates for investment banking?

  10. May says

    Thank you for providing such useful insights, has this site (because I am new to it and unsure if it is run by one person or multiple) ever considered starting a mentoring program?

  11. Serg says

    Hi, I kindly appreciate your site and have one question regarding boutiques in Russia – do you know some?

    We have a certain number of global bulge brackets subsidiaries here, but it’s hardly to find smth like Lazard and so on…

  12. Steve says

    Hey Brian

    Im currently a 3rd year Finance student at University and came across a boutique I-bank while going through an online directory. Their website says that they are looking to hire an Intern, IBanking. However the page also says that we must send in a Resume/Cover letter highlighting relevant work experience. I don’t really have any I-banking experience. So how would I go about making my case in the cover letter ?

    Thanks in advance

  13. Steve says

    I read something earlier that said making the switch from a boutique IB to a bulge bracket BB is fairly difficult. Why is this move so difficult if you’re doing the same type of work? I’ve seen people make the jump from completely different backgrounds like corporate finance or accounting backgrounds. Why do people say its more common to go from boutique to MM instead of going straight to BB from boutique?

    • M&I - Nicole says

      It can be fairly difficult given the current environment and the scale of deals you do at boutiques. At BBs, you get exposed to deals of a larger scale and interviewers might want candidates who have had such exposure. This also explains why people say its more common to go from boutique to MM instead of going straight to BB from boutique. With the above being said, transitioning to a BB from a boutique can be relatively straightforward if you know how to spin your story, had some awesome deal experience, have established a strong network and have a solid reputation.

  14. Andrew says

    I was lucky enough to meet a partner of a PE firm after a bit of networking. It turned out the PE firm has just invested in a new project and a CEO has been appointed for the project.

    There is an opportunity but its working on the financial modelling of the project not working within the PE firm modelling new investments. Obviously its a JV but I am just a bit worried the work will be more like finance work for an engineering project than finance work within a PE firm. Could I still spin the work experience (it will be finance natured)?

      • Andrew says

        I’m happy with your response because it tells me that this is more than I consider it to be. I am still finding it hard to see how this is related to PE / investment banking apart from the fact its a JV with a PE firm. There will be lots of financial modelling for me to do, its a brand new project. I did financial modelling in the finance team of a big energy company last summer, it’s the same story here – the work is relevant its just not got the name of a fancy bank, I guess after the work I could say the company was [insert name of PE firm] who took me on (as opposed to the name given to the JV).

        Would this opportunity be better than a position as renewables / M&A analyst at a boutique?

        Thanks so much for the help!

  15. Nathan says

    Say I get some work experience during university in a boutique (internships): would that experience serve me well when I make applications to BBs?

  16. James says

    With regard to BB vs. boutique, is there any difference between starting as an analyst vs. starting as an associate?

    I am an MBA student looking at a boutique bank in Chicago, with a potential associate opening.

    • M&I - Nicole says

      I don’t quite understand your question?

      Yes – I’d apply. Most grad MBA students enter in banks as associates

  17. Allison says

    Is there a list of boutique investment banks available? I’m trying to find an internship in NYC but have no prior finance experience.

  18. Shalabh says

    Hi, I have two years of experience in a tech startup. Now I am looking for a career change. I have an offer from an investment bank which was founded last year. I will be the first full time employee. The pay is shit, plus there is no office. No noteworthy deal done so far. Should I join such a firm. Will such an experience count or should I continue to look out for more opportunities?

  19. James says

    Hi

    I am currently working in the M&A team at a Big 4 firm (about 4.5 years experience) and am considering exit opportunities in another country, noting that I do not wish to stay with this particular Big 4 firm.

    What are your thoughts on joining a local investment bank (in the target country) that has strong deal flow with deal values upwards of US$200m (although some deals can be a lot smaller).

    In particular, what are the exit opportunities into 1) bulge bracket banks and 2) private equity firms if you have a Big 4 M&A and then a local IB on your CV?

    Would it be preferable to try and get into the IB division of a strong retail bank?

    Thanks for your help

    • James says

      or the other option is for me to stay in my current country and try to get into either a bulge bracket or elite boutique, before moving (a strong likelihood if I choose to pursue this option). Thanks

      • M&I - Nicole says

        As long as you know the local language of the country you’re moving to, I think the options are pretty much the same, unless you have a rolodex of clients/contacts in your home country

    • M&I - Nicole says

      Yes you can lateral into a BB at the target country after gaining experience at the local bank. To maximize your chances of moving try your best to be staffed on the best deals your firm has, and network with other bankers. Having a strong relationship with corporates will also help. I think moving to a PE maybe more challenging unless you can demonstrate that you’re a better candidate vs. others from BBs http://www.mergersandinquisitions.com/private-equity-recruiting/

  20. James says

    Hi

    What are everyone’s thoughts on the strength of Canaccord Genuity?

    Are they viewed as strong as some of the elite boutiques such as Lazard, Greenhill, Evercore etc?

    Thanks

  21. Louis says

    Dear M&I,

    Although this question may sound stupid, it’s been plaguing me for quite a while now. I have a friend who’s currently a freshman at Wharton and is looking into investment banking. However he’s not from the US and holds no no US citizenship. Will he still be able to get internships/jobs at BBs on Wall Street? He’s really hoping to land a summer internship at Goldman or Morgan Stanley.

    Thanks,
    Louis

    • M&I - Nicole says

      It can be challenging without the visa sponsorship but the worse case scenario, assuming he has done the work to break into banking, is that he works in his home country. With the above being said, if he’s applying for IBD roles and he’s a solid candidate, he has got a chance, especially since there are international students interning in the States. One thing is that it is hard to predict the economy and banks’ hiring needs at the time you’re looking for the internship.

  22. Manuel says

    Would you say it is harder to get into top boutiques (Evercore, Moelis, Lazard, etc.) than traditional BB IBs?

    Also, would you say that pay is better at top boutiques, given that the nature of their income is fee based and that they tend to have low overhead (i.e. no lending or capital market activities, and its associated risks, costs and regulatory oversight)?

    I’m very interested in IB, but I detest all things that are bureaucratic (in house, serving the client I have no problem with) and I’m evaluating which options to go for during MBA summer internship.

    • M&I - Nicole says

      Not necessarily

      Yes pay maybe better at top boutiques. If you don’t like bureaucracy, perhaps a boutique/elite/small bank may fit you best. Big banks can open you doors but many tend to be bureaucratic. Firms that are starting out, or are trying to “rise through the ranks” tend to be less bureaucratic especially since they need to “react fast”

  23. Oscar says

    Brian, have you ever heard of IMAP? It is a M&A advisory services private firm with private parnerships in several countries. What do you think about this type of botiques?

    • M&I - Nicole says

      Yes it is a good firm. It is M&A focused and I’ve heard their pay is above street though I’m not 100% sure.

  24. Siddarth says

    Hi M&I, I’m following your blog from a long time and this is the best possible blog on IB……….

    I’m basically an IT engineer trying to break into banking, I wasn’t able to get into top b-school this year. So I have decided to take up a certification course in banking. The training institute has also promised me a job in boutique firm.

    1) Is it easy to break into a bulge bracket firm as an associate after 2-3 years of experience in a boutique firm ?

    2) If I’m offered a job in equity research or some KPO should I accept it ?
    (My target is to land up in M&A bulge bracket after 2-3 years experience in finance)

    Please let me know if I could do anything else to get into BB M&A….

    Thanks in Advance

  25. sean says

    Hi Brian,

    I have been speaking with a boutique private equity firm about taking me on this summer, however, persistence was required to keep the months-long conversation going. The associate in charge of hiring told me over the phone to forward my resume and that he would be in touch with me for an interview time in the nest few days. This happened 2 weeks ago, and still no response. What should my next steps be? I’ve been calling this guy A LOT because he keeps forgetting to get back to me. Would a phone call or an e-mail be better? How should I approach this conversation? Thanks

    • says

      Follow-up via the phone. Never wait more than a week to follow-up – just be very direct and say that you’re really interested in interviewing there, you know he’s busy, and you want to know what the next steps are so you can get started right away.

  26. AT says

    Hi I really need some advice here. I come from an science background, and I have been offered a position as an equity analyst in a boutique investment firm. However the catch is that I am expected to do a part-time self supported accounting class or a CFA in the next 1.5 – 2 years after I join (due to my lack of finance background), and I will only be converted to an equity analyst then. Meanwhile I would also be paid significantly lesser then what an equity analyst is supposed to get (maybe 50%?). How does the deal sound to you?

    • M&I - Nicole says

      I wouldn’t say this is unusual, though this certainly isn’t attractive. If you have other options on hand that are better, then yes I may forgo this one. Otherwise I’d take this opportunity. If you plan to progress on the buy-side a CFA is useful so I can understand their logic.

  27. Josh says

    Hey there, I just want to get your comments here. I started my career at a Bulge Bracket (accomplished the A2A) . Last year, I got a nice offer from a regional Boutique, including a small amount of Equity. We have made 4 deals of ~$50m this year, so my income has been similar to a top Analyst in a BB. Recently I received an opp to join Evercore. There are a lot of things I don’t like from the Boutique, but I’m unsure if I should take the offer at Evercore and return to the BB “style”, any thoughts?

    • M&I - Nicole says

      Congratulations! Good on you. Depends if you want the equity and what you don’t like about the last job. If what you don’t like can be worked out with the team, I’d stick with that role and get equity. Evercore is a decent firm, but I may not necessarily sacrifice your current role for it, unless they can match your pay

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